Who Will Win 2013 Polls In Bangladesh?
Bangladesh will go to polls by this year end. The Awami League had won the last elections defeating the Bangladesh National Party of Khaleda Zia after a bitter struggle. Mrs Zia and her Bangladesh National Party had played foul while demitting the office. After its term was over, Zia appointed her favourites as members of the interim government who were to oversee the elections. Noting the game, General Moin, Army Chief, had intervened in a partial coup, and dismissed the interim government. He appointed new impartial members under whom free and fair polls were held and the Awami League won a clear majority and formed the government.
Shortly after the Awami League took over, there was a revolt in the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), with the Director General and several officers being taken as prisoners on the BDR campus. The Bangladesh Army immediately reacted by cordoning the BDR campus. There was a tense standoff between the Army and the rebel BDR troops. In the process, the BDR Chief and his wife were killed along with several officers and men, who had been loyal to him. I was watching the developments closely and was in touch with the BSF officers who had been visiting Bangladesh annually during the conference with their counterparts. I also had some close friends in Bangladesh who kept me informed of the developments. I learnt reliably that during the course of the takeover, certain arms had found their way into the BDR campus. These were of different caliber from the weapons carried by the BDR. It was obvious from this that external forces were behind the revolt of the BDR. The Bangladesh Army, however, stood solidly behind their new prime minister and the BDR revolt was crushed. The trial of the personnel of BDR who revolted and were captured is in its final stages.
In this context, we should see what happened immediately after the liberation war. During the liberation war, some of the Bengali officers who had been commissioned in the Pakistan Army were posted in West Pakistan, when the Pakistan Army took over East Pakistan refusing to allow the Awami League party to form the Government after it had got an overall majority in the elections to the Pakistan Parliament in 1971. As the guerilla war started against the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, a few brave East Bengali officers managed to sneak into India from West Pakistan and surrender to the Border Security Force who took them east and they were made sector commanders for the guerilla groups of the Mukti Bahini organised from the Bengal Regiment that had managed to cross over to India. Major Abu Taher and Major Ziauddin were the first Bengali Officers who managed to slip out of Pakistan and slip into India on the western border. They were sector commanders of the Mukti Bahini on the borders of East Pakistan. One leading Bengali Officer who was in Chittagong when the Pakistan Army’s blitzkrieg started and who managed to slip into Tripura with three companies of the Bengal Regiment of the Pakistan Army was Colonel Ziaur Rehman, who later became the President of Bangladesh. He also operated as a sector commander commanding a guerilla group operating inside East Pakistan.
When East Pakistan was finally liberated by the Indian Army in December 1971, 92,000 Pakistani troops were taken as prisoners of war and shifted to India. This had to be done quickly as the Pakistan Army had committed severe atrocities on the Bengali people of East Pakistan, raping hundreds of women and killing hundreds of intellectuals. One unfortunate incident happened concerning the 92,000 prisoners of war. The Bangladesh Government when formed gave a list of hundreds of Pakistani Army personnel who had committed severe atrocities on the people of East Pakistan, like rapes and murders. After liberation, East Pakistan was renamed as Bangladesh and the new government gave a list of these war criminals to India for handing them over to Bangladesh for criminal prosecution.
It took two years for the negotiations between Pakistan and India before an agreement could be signed at Simla in 1972 on the issue of captured prisoners and war criminals. Meanwhile, in the new Bangladesh, a Freedom Fighters league had been formed and the leaders had named several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and others who acted as collaborators with the Pakistan Army in raping Bangladeshi girls and killing many freedom fighters. The Freedom Fighters League of Bangladesh requested the Indian Government to hand over the three hundred odd Pakistani Army personnel, whom they had identified for committing war crimes against the citizens of Bangladesh. The Freedom Fighters League had also identified many collaborators in Bangladesh, who had sided with the Pakistan Army in raping local women and killing a number of local intellectuals. The Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh had sided with the Pakistan Army in killing and raping local men and women during the war. When they saw that the Indian Army was going to win, the Jamaat leaders Gholam Azam, and his deputy, Abdul Khader Mullah and several others fled Bangladesh by slipping across into India and secretly escaping to Pakistan. Abdul Khader Mullah had earned the dubious title of the Butcher of Mirpur for atrocities committed by him in association with the Pakistan Army during the liberation war.
Two things now happened, one in India and the other in Bangladesh. In India, when the discussions were going on about returning the Pakistan prisoners of war, the Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto requested the Prime Minister of India not to handover the three hundred odd Pakistani prisoners of war who had been labelled as war criminals for raping and killing civilians during the liberation struggle on the grounds that they were prisoners of war and had to be returned to Pakistan.
When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to Dhaka, he was approached by the same leaders of the Students League who a year earlier had pressed him into declaring an independent Bangladesh. They outlined their proposals for a vigorous programme of nationalisation, cooperatives, agrarian reforms and post war reconstruction. They called upon the Awami League for a separate programme for the transition to Socialism. They also proposed the formation of a government of national unity, including all parties who had fought against Pakistan. Mujib rejected this and other proposals. Instead, imbued with his own apparent popularity and new found international image, he advanced his own vague ideological package called the four pillars of Mujibism—Nationalism, Secularism, Socialism and Democracy. To his militant supporters of 1970, Mujib’s new programme was simply an empty pot to be filled with the fruits of foreign aid bonanza, not the ideals of the independence struggle. For the militants, the time for a complete break had come.
Notwithstanding the euphoria of independence, the beginning of the Awami League’s decline had set in within the first year of independence. The idealism and enthusiasm which the party had inspired in its struggle against Pakistan’s military dictatorship was being drowned in a sea of corruption. This corruption was being funded principally by nearly two billion dollars worth of relief commodities, aid, contracts and international business which poured in from the bountiful overseas cornucopia following independence. While the bribe, the kickbacks and the payoffs had all previously existed in the familiar form known as baksheesh, what was new were the extraordinary sums involved. In two-and-a-half-year, the regime in Dhaka received more aid than it had received in its previous 23 years as the province of East Pakistan. Talk of black money and stories of illicit trade deals became a part of the dark new folklore of the post independence period.
Radical critics who found that they were being shunted out from the Army and the important Ministries charged that foreign aid had become the prime source for the criminalisation of the country’s politics and the destruction of the idealism which had emerged from the period of the guerilla war. The most notorious example of the style of primitive accumulation indulged in by the members of the new government was that of Ghazi Ghulam Mustafa, President of the Dhaka city’s Awami League and chairman of Bangladesh’s Red Cross Society. Mustafa established a multi-million dollar black market operation in relief goods which became the principal financial source for the financing the Awami League.
At one stage, the Director of the United Nations Relief operation in Bangladesh (UNROB) observed that it had become so bad that only one in seven tins of Baby food and one in thirteen blankets donated to relief ever reached the poor. Besides John Stonehouse, the British Labour Party MP whose illicit dealings ultimately put him behind bars, a number of other foreigners became soldiers of fortune in the midst of misery.
It was in this situation that the Awami League’s most militant supporters turned into its most active opposition. By late 1974, the government officials were openly admitting that more than 3000 Awami League officials had been assassinated either through inter party rivalry or by various underground groups. Open forms of insurgency were developing in certain parts of the country. Among the most active of the armed groups was Siraj Sikdar’s Purba Bangla Sharbohara party. After having taken an active part in the freedom struggle, the Sharbohara party reorganised in Guerilla squads. Following independence it identified the Mujib government as its main enemy. In the spring of 1974, the Sharbohara party and the Marxist underground in general received an unusual recruit. In May of that year, leaflets appeared in Dhaka Military cantonment and in and in other sections of the city that Lt Col Ziauddin, the former Commander of the Dacca Brigade had joined Sikdar’s East Bengal Proletarian party.
In October 1972, a convening committee of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) was founded, calling itself not a party but a socialist mass organisation.
The poverty and increasing unemployment in the country’s 65,000 villages had become worse since independence. The 46 million people out of a total population of 72 million were living below the poverty line. These were people who did not earn enough to consume 2100 calories per day. They were mainly landless peasants and small farmers. In 1949, agricultural workers earned Taka 697 per annum. By 1969, it had reached Taka 834. By 1974, the income of agricultural workers had come down to Taka 580.
In the first three days of October 1974, nineteen official starvation deaths were reported from Dhaka city. All the prevailing signs of a famine were unfolding. The phenomenal rise in the price of rice was the main factor in starvation now overwhelming the ranks of the poorer classes. The direct cause of this being the harvesters of profiteering, speculation and corruption in nation’s grain trade. The markets were full of grains at a price. During the third week in September, the price of rice skyrocketed to nearly Taka 400 per maund, ten times the pre-independence level of three years ago. Rangpur district was one of the most seriously affected districts. By early October, there was frenzy in the Rangpur Treasury as thousands of people tried to get their land sold, to buy rice. More than 100,000 acres of land were sold at half their normal price. The peasents were losing out in two directions, with land prices plummeting and rice prices skyrocketing. More than 25000 people died in Rangpur during three months. The cause according to Medical officers was absolute starvation.
The year of the famine became the pivot of Mujib’s decline. When in 1971, as the unchallenged leader of the Nationalist movement Mujib had spoken to crowds of more than a million, in 1974, he rarely ventured out to address an open meeting. Disturbances were too likely. In December 1973, the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) was already holding mass rallies of crowds of upto 100,000 on Dacca’s Paltan Maidan.
Meanwhile during the food riots, the government had asked the Army to patrol and check hoarding of rice. Also, Mujib had raised a new police unit called the Rakhi Bahini which was directly controlled by the government. Unfortunately on several occasions, when the Army had detained hoarders, the Rakhi Bahini squads would arrive and take over the hoarders detained by the Army before they could hand them over to the police. The Army Officers deployed to help the Police found that the persons whom they caught were being released by the Rakhi Bahini. They began to feel that there was corruption at the Prime Minister’s level.
On 17 March 1974, the JSD led a hunger march on the Home Minister’s residence. As they reached the Minister’s house, units of the Rakhi Bahini arrived and opened fire. This came to be known as the Minto Road massacre. Following this incident, many JSD leaders were arrested, the party’s offices were ransacked. The party was forced to go underground.
Every indication was that it would be the Left that would stage a revolution. In famine areas there were stories of rebels breaking open government grain warehouses and distributing stocks to the hungry. In this background if there had to be a revolutionary step it should have been from the left. Surprisingly by a peculiar combination of developments it was the right that struck.
In December 1974, Mujib put the country under emergency rule. The crackdown on underground parties was intensified. At the end of the month Siraj Sikdar leader of the Sharbohara party was captured. He was found shot in the back, with the Police claiming that he was shot when trying to escape! An explosive situation was developing and within six months Mujibur Rehman was shot dead. On the night of August 14/15, it was a team of six majors and their subordinate personnel who went to the house of Mujibur Rehman and eliminated him and several of his close relatives in his house. Khondakar Mushtaq Ahmed was sworn in as de facto President with the six Majors and their subordinates holed up in the Presidents official residence!
Brig Khaled Musharraf led the next coup, but this was immediately upstaged by a soldiers uprising that had been brewing for several months. For a Muslim country, this soldier’s coup that was being planned was totally extraordinary, for their plan was to establish a revolutionary soldier’s government with all future officers to be promoted only from the ranks. Col Abu Taher and Col Ziauddin were in the know of this plan. Col Taher made the cardinal mistake of deciding to put Gen Ziaur Rehman to lead this coup. When he confided this plan to Gen Zia, he quickly moved to the Right and organised the Police to crush the soldiers, who had almost succeeded in taking over some cantonments and reversed the coup. Gen Zia then had Col Taher arrested and took control of the Army. Col Taher was confined to the jail where a special trial was arranged and he was sentenced to death and hanged.
It was extraordinary that while all the signs and indications were of the “Left” extreme organising to overthrow the by now corrupt regime of Mujibur Rehman, while the whole countryside was seething with deep poverty and a section in the Army was thinking and planning a Bolshevik-like insurrection, it was the “Right” that struck first. The coup appeared to have been organised by six Majors and their subordinate ranks from the only armoured regiment of the infant Bangladesh Army with two or three shadowy civil servants behind them. I feel that there was more to the eye than was evident and this factor was not properly probed.
The 14 August 1975
Just after midnight tanks of the Bengal Lancers trundled off from the Cantonment to an abandoned airfield on the edge of Dhaka city ostensibly for a training exercise. The Commanding Officer Major Farooq briefed the personnel on the tarmac. He said that tonight we will overthrow the President of Bangladesh, Mujibur Rehman. After a fire eating speech, the convoy split into three columns and headed for the President’s House. Within three hours they had killed Mujib and forty members of his family.
In the morning after the killing of Mujibur Rehman, the three Majors involved installed Khondakar Mushtaq Ahmed, the Commerce Minister as the President of Bangladesh. When he went to make his address to the nation, he was accompanied by two civilian officials-Mahbub Alam Chashi and Taheruddin Thakur. In a series of interviews conducted by the Sunday Time journalist Anthony Mascarenhas in London, of Major Farooq and others in exile, they claimed that they were in direct contact with Khondakar Mushtaq Ahmed in the weeks prior to the coup. It was known that the Army who had been directed to assist the State in detecting smugglers and anti-national elements had arrested important district level officials of Mujib’s party in connection with their illicit cross border trade with India. After their arrest, the Awami Leaguers were released on Mujib’s orders. The Army was called off the anti-smuggling operations. This was the insult that many Army Officers could not forget and led to the coup. According to Mascarenhas’ interview with Major Rashid who led the coup, they had informed Gen Ziaur Rehman about their plot and he had indicated that he would not throw the weight of his command against such a move!
General Zia’s rule did not last very long. After he took over the State in 1975, he denationalised industries and favoured private enterprise. He made himself the President of Bangladesh in 1977 and in the following year started the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and allowed political activity to resume. He was assassinated in an Army coup by dissatisfied officers within the Army when he was visiting Chittagong in 1981. His wife took over the reins of the BNP in 1984.
Gen Ziaur Rehman made a very significant change when he allowed the President of the Jamaat-e-Islami Abdullah Azam and his lieutenant Abdul Khader Mullah, who was known as the butcher of Mirpur, both of whom had run away from East Pakistan after the Pakistan Army had surrendered to the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini. They took shelter in Pakistan. When Gen Zia allowed them to come back, they came back on Pakistani passports to Bangladesh. Gen. Ziaur Rehman also set up the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) in Bangladesh with the help of the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
After his death, the Army Chief Gen Ershad took over as the President of Bangladesh. He started a political party called the Jatiya Parishad. Gen. Ershad unfortunately did not have a clean image. In 1991, elections were held again after years of Military rule. In this election Madame Khaleda Zia, widow of Gen. Ziaur Rehman won the elections in a coalition with the Jamaat-e-Islami defeating the Awami League, headed by the daughter of Mujibur Rehman, Sheikh Hasina. The BNP allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami, who got 18 seats.
Madame Khaleda Zia continued the policy of her late husband in patronising the Pakistan heritage. The Directorate General Forces Initelligence (DGFI) played an important role in Government and kept a liaison with the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence. As far as India was concerned, it was during this time that the Indian insurgent groups, the NSCN IM from Nagaland and the ULFA from Assam went to Bangladesh and met the Pakistan ISI officials through the Bangladesh DGFI officials. I was Inspector General Operations in Assam operating against the ULFA. I had won over a number of cadres of the ULFA and employed them in Assam Police as constables and returned them to the field to spot ULFA cadres. We were able to arrest a number of third grade and second grade and one first grade ULFA cadres. One day after an year of these operations, one of the turned around ULFA cadre came and informed me that a group of senior ULFA cadres who had gone to Pakistan and returned after training had escaped from Bangladesh and wanted to surrender. The next day this second grade ULFA Cadre surrendered before me and during debriefing informed us that the Pakistan ISI and the Bangladesh DGFI officers had met Paresh Barua, the ULFA commander and Thuingalen Muivah and Isaac Swu of the NSCN IM in a coastal town of Bangladesh and given them several lakh dollars for purchase of arms from illegal arms dealers from Bangkok and Manila. Later we had learnt from surrendered ULFA cadres that the first consignment of arms, purchased from Chinese arms factories had been brought by a North Korean ship off the coast of Cox’s Bazaar, down loaded into a local coastal ship and brought to Cox Bazaar and from there taken on foot by NSCN IM cadres via Bandarban south of Mizoram crossing into Churachandpur and thence to the NSCN IM camp in Benin in Tamenglong district of Manipur.
It was during this period that a big confrontation took place between the Freedom fighters association and a group representing the Non Government Organisations that were doing very good work in the villages of Bangladesh and the Islamists represented by the Jamaat-e-Islami and associations of Mullahs controlling civil society in the villages.
The backbone of rural development in Bangladesh was the Non Government Organisations working in the interior villages and small towns. Unfortunately the Islamist fundamentalists were against these NGOs. This predative enmity from the Islamists is because it is the NGOs who empower women and this takes them out of the purview and exploiting control of the Islamist religious leaders. Listed below are some illustrations of the above statement.
Brahmanbaria is a small town 150 kilometres from Dhaka. An NGO called Trinamul had organised a celebration on December 7, 1998 of the liberation of Brahmanbaria from the Pakistan Army in 1971. About 125 people had collected for the celebration. A couple of hundred Islamic Madrassa students organised by The Islamic Oikya Jote, a rabidly Islamic fundamentalist organisation attacked the civilians who had gathered to celebrate the defeat of the Pakistan Army from their village. A number of the NGO offices were burnt and all the villagers who had gathered were beaten black and blue by the mob. During the reign of General Ershad and Khaleda Zia such incidents of Islamists attacking innocent people were numerous.
Following the assassination of Mujib in 1975 and the promulgation of Martial Law Islamisation became the corner stone of the policy of the new regime and Islamists co-opted in the governing coalitions. Despite this there was a standing fight by the secularists. During the 1990s, secular civil society confronted the Islamists in three battles. These were: Try Jamaat chief Ghulam Azam, the Jamaat leader who sided with the Pakistan Army in killing Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims who fought against Pakistan. He had fled from East Pakistan when he found the Pakistan Army was to be defeated and was brought back by Gen Ziaur Rehman when he came to power.
Resist the implementation of fatwa against Taslima Nasreen.
The resistance by civil society from 1972-1980
The situation took a turn for the worse after the coup d’ etat of 1975. The military regime further curtailed the fundamental rights of the people and embarked on an Islamisation drive. The most obvious changes favouring the Islamisation of the State began in the regime of Ziaur Rehman. The first organised opposition to this process came in early 1981 from the erstwhile freedom fighters acting under the banner of Bangladesh Mukhti Jodha Sangsad, in the form of resistance to the Jamaat-e-Islami leader Gholam Azam. Interestingly, this was done with the support of Gen Ziaur Rehman. Apparently, the growing clout of the Islamists concerned Gen Ziaur Rehman and he realised the need for a resistance from civil society.
Unfortunately his assassination by some disgruntled Army officers in mid 1980 and the imposition of martial law by his successor, Gen H M Ershad in 1982, put the clock back on reform.
Secularists confront Islamists in 1991
The downfall of Gen Ershad in 1990 and the free election of 1991 brought an elected government of the Bangladesh National party (BNP) to power. Unfortunately there was a post election understanding between the BNP and the JEI. This encouraged the JEI on its Islamist mission.
The movement to try Gholam Azam
In the 1971 war Gholam Azam, the Amir of JEI, actively collaborated with the Pakistan Army and helped organise Razakar and Al Badr killing squads who killed a number of Bengali intellectuals. In the last days of the Liberation war, when the Pakistan Army was to surrender to the combined Bangladesh Mukti Bahini and Indian Army, Gholam Azam fled to Pakistan through India. In 1972, he was directed to surrender before a local court in Dhaka. When he did not appear, his citizenship was cancelled, vide Bangladesh Gazette extraordinary dated 22 June 1973. Gholam Azam took refuge in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. After the coup of 1975, when Gen Ziaur Rehman was the President under the persuasion of Saudi Arabia, he was allowed to return. Gholam Azam returned to Pakistan on a Pakistani passport.
When the Pakistan Army surrendered to the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini, there were 195 specifically identified Pakistan Army personnel who had killed innocent Bengali civilians and committed similar crimes. These 195 Pakistan Army personnel were shifted to India as prisoners of war for safe keeping along with the 90,000 odd prisoners of war. There was intense pressure from the Pakistan Government not to try these 195 war criminals in Bangladesh. Finally, a tripartite agreement was signed between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and these 195 war criminals along with 90,000 odd Pakistani prisoners of war were repatriated to Pakistan in 1973. Once this was done, the case against the local perpetrators of violence against Bengali people of East Pakistan became morally weak. Several proclamations were issued in 1975, after the coup that killed Mujibur Rehman rehabilitating the war criminals. After this Gholam Azam became the de-facto chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh. In 1979, the Jammat-e-Islami was revived in Bangladesh and in 1981; Gholam Azam ventured to appear in a public meeting. There was a violent reaction by the freedom Fighters League, which incidentally was headed by Gen Ziaur Rehman by virtue of being a Sector Commander in the Mukti Bahini and had fought against the Pakistan Army. Violent clashes ensued between the Jamaat cadres and the Freedom Fighters League. However, despite the clashes, the Jamaat as a political party got 18 seats in the elections of 1991. The Jamaat declared Gholam Azam as the emir of the organization.
On January 19, 1992, the 101 citizens and intellectuals, under the leadership of Jehanara, mother of a martyr, who had been killed by the Razakars and the Pakistan Army challenged the nomination of Azam, saying that he was a foreigner and a war criminal and he should be tried. By late January 1992, these intellectuals had garnered enough support and on 11 February 1992, formed the National Coordinating Committee for the realisation of the Bangladesh Liberation war ideals and trial of war criminals. Seventy two political, socio-cultural, trade unions, women’s freedom fighters and student organisations joined hands and demanded that the government take action, otherwise they would hold a symbolic Public Tribunal (Gono Adaalat) to try Gholam Azam.
On March 26, 1992, Anti Liberation forces, Jammat-e-Islami and other such groups countered with processions flaunting arms. Tension escalated. Finally, the government arrested Gholam Azam on 24 March 1992 under the Foreigners Act. The Public Tribunal met. Twelve well known personalities including three advocates, two nationally acclaimed Professors and two Commanders of the Liberation war headed by Jehanara Imam constituted the Public Tribunal. A mammoth gathering demonstrated that the Tribunal had enormous public support. The panel of judges found Azam guilty of ten specific charges each of which could carry a death sentence.
The Islamists filed a writ petition on behalf of Azam within a week of his arrest, challenging the arrest and denying that he was a foreigner.
The hearing of the writ petition of Gholam Azam began on 4 July 1992 and continued till 5 August 1992.The case remained unsolved as the two judges rendered separate judgments. The Chief Justice then forwarded the case to a Single Judge for a verdict. The Islamists launched a series of violent agitations, attacking the Central Mosque of the Ahmediyas as a diversion. A Christian Church in Cox’s Bazaar was desecrated and a riot between Sunnis and Wahabis erupted in South East Bangladesh.
Meanwhile the Nirmal Committee resumed its campaign in early November of 1992. The brutal killing of Bengali intellectuals in 1971 by the pro Pakistan Al Badr organisation and the Jammat-e-Islami is commemorated by Bangladeshis every year and the fact that no one could be brought to justice is a source of national anger and sorrow. In this connection a general strike was called on December 12-13, 1992, ahead of a scheduled SAARC meeting.
Then on 5 December 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya in India. This delivered a body blow to the secularists of the subcontinent. By the evening of 5 December 1992, it was the Islamists who took to the streets in Bangladesh. Violent attacks on the Hindu community, temples and Hindu households began all over Bangladesh, including the office of the Nirmal Committee.
By December 9, 1992, the violence against the Hindu community spread all over the country and the primary question became how to bring an end to the mayhem. After two weeks, some semblance of order returned. By then the Islamists had turned the tide. The movement against them had been contained and the secularists had lost the momentum.
On 22 April, the single member bench of the High Court gave the verdict in favour of Gholam Azam. He was released from jail. The government filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. On 22 June 1994, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of restoring Gholam Azam’s citizenship.
The Issue of NGOs
Looking back to the State of Bangladesh today, the principal feature of the rural development in this country is the amazing role of the Non Governmental Organisations in improving the health, education, and domestic economy of the poor particularly in the rural areas. This has come about despite a determined fight by obscurantist religious leaders in the rural areas.
The NGOs have been in Bangladesh since independence, but they came into prominence as agents of development in late 1980s, largely because of the failure of the State to deliver basic services to the marginalized segments of society, especially in rural areas. There were 997 local and135 foreign NGOs in Bangladesh as per the NGO Bureau, Dhaka in 1998.
The pronounced goal of these NGOs was to get poor women involved in economic activities thereby increasing the involvement of women in the formal economy through small scale development, whereas, the Muslim clergy particularly the Jammat-e-Islami insisted on the traditional family role of the women. The income generating project of the NGOs for women were consistent with first objective, while they posed a challenge to the second.
The increase visibility and growing assertiveness of rural women had by early 1990s become a threat to the ideological preconception about women’s domesticity propounded by the Islamists. They consequently began a vigorous anti NGO campaign. They expressed their apprehension that the NGOs and their development projects, their schools, and women’s programmes were contributing to an alien way of life. They further insisted that by education of women and also giving them a sustainable income, of their own, they would develop sexual promiscuity. This was even published by one Islamic fundamentalist M Rashiduzzaman as—“The dichotomy of Islam and development” issued as a fatwa.
In the beginning of 1993, the Islamists moved into action. The first confrontation with the NGOs ensued when a local Mufti Maulana Ibrahim Khondakar, urged villagers not to accept help from Christian Missionary non-profit agencies like CARE in a remote rural village Nandigram in Bogra district. He later issued a fatwa that anyone accepting help from these proscribed NGOs would be considered non-Muslims. This was published in the Daily Inquilab mouthpiece of one brand of Islamists on November 14, 1993. The publication triggered a chain of events throughout the country. Reports of local Mullahs issuing identical fatwas in various places began to reach the Capital. Publicity materials in support the Mullahs were found in the Capital Dacca, corroborating the suspicion that that these were much more than local reactions, but were nationally organised by Islamist parties. The Daily Inquilab published a number of articles supporting the actions of the local Mullahs. The main allegations that emerged were:
- NGOs aided by Jews and Christian conspirators were wrecking the Islamic cultural values, while threatening the independence of the country.
- Foreign NGOs resembled the old East India Company, that once captured the Muslim power in India and whose successes might now ruin Muslim Sovereignty and Islamic culture in Bangladesh.
- BRAC, an NGO specialising in education was spreading atheism among the people.
- Western missionaries were converting people to Christianity.
- Unmarried men and women working together in the NGOs were engaged in extra marital sex.
- By giving loans directly to wives and having them work independently, NGOs were fueling an anti-husband and anti-family mentality among women.
- To create an aggressively feminist and impure society such as that in the United States and Europe, the NGOs were forcing women to ride cycles and motor cycles.
- NGOs were preaching that Islam was a religion of the illiterates—decrying purdah and degrading women by forcing them to work with strange men.
Wrapped in these three accusations were three primary issues of contention between the clerics and the NGOs. These issues, the role of women and education must be explained within the context of the rural power structure of Bangladesh. One of the defining characteristics of the rural power structures in Bangladesh is the presence of various levels of patron-client relationships. On the one hand, the representatives of the State occupy the position of patron and the rural community at large serves as the client, while on the other hand, within the rural community a small class of patrons by virtue of their control over resources- material or otherwise- have a huge pool of the disenfranchised poor as their clientale. It is the second kind of patrons who sit at the helm of the power pyramid and have enormous influence on the daily lives of the people. They not only enjoy support from the institutional structures- the local State machinery, but also create a structure of their own to support social practices. Rural mullahs play twin roles in this power structure- they provide legitimacy to this structure and relationship and they exercise power and authority as a constituent of the structure. Of particular significance is their former role, for without legitimacy, the structure would face a serious rupture. The innate risk of rupture makes other members of the structure, rich peasents and local politicians, heavily reliant on the mullahs. The low rate of literacy in the rural areas of Bangladesh has made the mullahs a primary source of knowledge that enables them to mouth public discourse in certain ways. They also act as the moral guardians of the order and derive their authority from their knowledge of Islamic tradition. The State and the national politicians have blessed this arrangement and find it convenient in maintaining order.
The NGOs by their intervention in the rural community, threaten this order and undermine the relationships. In this war of hegemony specific issues and spheres of influence emerge as battle grounds. The three issues- roles of women, credit and education have been the battle grounds where these forces have faced each other.
The patriarchal structure- family and the community have constructed an image of the woman and determined her role in Bangladesh. The docile weak and submissive image of woman in Bangladesh and their invisibility in the public sphere have more to do with the customs of the country than with Sharia-based Islamic laws. In the rural areas, this image has been perpetuated, and legitimated in the name of Islam as interpreted by the rural clergy. Islamists have not only found it convenient but have also used it as a tool to advance their version of Islam.
The developmentalist agenda of the NGOs was thus diametrically opposite. This wanted women to openly participate and be involved in processes that would enable them to gain their own resources. Hence the conflict. Rural mullahs and by extension the Islamists saw this as a blow to their version of social control.
The conflict between NGOs and mullahs on the issue of credit has existed at socio-economic and ideological levels. At the socio-economic levels, the availability of credit enabled women to control economic resources, consequently placing male dominance in the decision making process under threat. Besides availability of credit from extraneous sources irked rural money lenders whom are an integral part of the rural power structure. Islamists saw this as a step towards dismantling the economic base of their authority over rural society.
The most potent threat of dis-Islamisation in the eye of the Islamists came from NGOs in the education sector. A number of NGO’S, most prominently the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) launched non-formal education programmes, enabling millions of children to attend schools in rural areas. In 1994, more than 2.6 million children and adults studied in 73,000 educational centres. Of these 1.4 million were primary age children of whom 63 per cent were girls, 4, 00,000 adolescents, of whom 65 per centwere girls and 8, 00,000 adults of whom 80 per cent were women. These Primary school undermined the importance of Madras controlled by the mullahs. The teachers of these institutions, much to the annoyance of the mullahs were women.
The concerted effort to violently confront the NGOs took an organisational shape in early 1994, when an anti NGO alliance- the Bangladesh anti-Christian Organisation emerged. Concurrently there was a rise in the number of incidents of Salish and fatwas against women all over the country. The Islamist political parties extended their support and militant segments within their ranks became active. On 9 February 1994, in a waz mahfil (religious gathering) in Nimaidighi village in Bogra district, speakers issued a fatwa decreeing that the BRAC run schools in the area were proselytising and should be closed immediately. On the same night the BRAC school in the adjoining Batdighi village was set on fire.
In subsequent days twenty seven schools run by BRAC were attacked by arsonists. In January 1994, some six lakh mulberry trees grown by women in Kishanganj district on waste land were cut down by Islamists. In Bogra district, in February 1994, thousands of mulberry trees planted by women working for BRAC in waste land along a one kilometer stretch of road connecting the villages of Pathan, Mirzapur and Nischindara were destroyed.
While these events were taking place, in the North of Bangladesh in village Konartona under Kulaura Police Station of Habiganj district, the internationally acclaimed Grameen bank came under threat. The staff were manhandled and in a religious gathering the bank was instructed to close down the branch and leave the area within forty days. A press release on 12 March 1994 estimated that NGOs in fifteen districts encountered forty such attacks over a period of two months. By August at least 1750 cases of issuing fatwa against NGOs were reported. In some cases NGO offices and their projects were attacked, ransacked and destroyed. The women workers of the NGOs faced the most hardship and in places, schools run by the women had to be closed sine die.
It was not only the offices, health centres, educational institutions that were targeted, but also the personnel, lives of the women, who either benefited from or were involved were affected. In February-March 1994, three Imams in Bogra issued fatwas against sixty families who were to be socially isolated in their village because of their contacts with BRAC and ten men were directed to divorce their wives who were working for NGOs. The same Imam issued a fatwa in March 1993 to Farida Begum and her husband of a village in Bogra district to be lashed 101 times because of Farida’s work with BRAC. Again, the same Imam imposed a similar punishment on Rashida Begum for having taken a loan from the Grameen bank.
These events received extensive coverage in the local press, yet the government did not act. This was the government of the Bangladesh National party headed by Khaleda Zia. The Jamaat-e-Islami was her coalition partner and they were the chief drivers of the movement against the NGOs.
The massive assault on NGO workers in Brahmanbaria drew the attention of the whole nation, yet the local administration, particularly the Law enforcing Agencies refused to take any action. The NGOs could not even get a case registered against the perpetrators. In Brahmanbaria, the Islamists specifically targeted an NGO Proshika, because it was the largest NGO in the area. The Islamists emerged as the victors. They organised a rally in the capital, Dhaka on 8 March 1999, which happened to be International Women’s Day. This time it was the secular Awami League of Sheikh Hasina ruling. The government’s reaction was similar to the earlier government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Zia.
As a sequel to this a meeting was arranged between Proshika and the Islamists. The government representative, a Minister clearly refused to confront the Islamists. A temporary truce agreed on the Islamists terms soon collapsed because of an allegedly offensive comment by the head of Proshika. The Islamic Oikya Jote called for a strike in Brhamanbaria on 19 April 2000. In a public meeting supporting the strike, the leader of the Oikya Jote Fazlul Haque Amin called upon the public to kill on sight the head of Proshika Kazi Farooq Ahmed. This threat was a criminal offence, but the government remained silent.
Meanwhile, another movement of rural mullahs passing fatwas in village disputes particularly against women by ordering the accused woman to be half buried in the earth and stoned. Several such incidents were reported and finally secular groups filed a petition in the Court praying that the Mullahs should not have the powers to punish women by such medieval methods and all offences should only be filed in Courts of law. In January 2001, the court directed that fatwas are illegal. The Islamists reacted and organised a violent demonstration in Dhaka and elsewhere. The wrath of the Islamists erupted on 2 February 2001, leading to the lynching of a constable during the general strike on the next day. In the clashes that ensued between the Islamists and the Police seven people died in Brahmanbaria. They were declared as martyrs of jihad.
After this a section of the secularists created a common platform, The United Citizen’s Movement. This brought together a number of prominent citizens and Social Organisations under an Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh. They organised a grand rally in Dhaka on 3 February 2001 to voice the conviction to eradicate poverty, violence, extortion, religious fundamentalism, communalism and oppression of women and to demand the proper trial of the 1971 war criminals and to reaffirm to pledge to resist the enemies of the independence of Bangladesh. The Islamists threw an open challenge by calling a general strike on the same day. Despite the Islamists threat of intimidation and violence, the rally was a massive success, with more than three lakh people, largely women and NGO beneficiaries gathered at Dhaka giving a stunning response to the Islamists, that the Government did not have the courage to confront. It was verily a triumph of the people of Bangladesh against the forces of obscurantism and medievalism. From this point you will see as the essay unfolds how the NGOs have made a comeback and transformed the rural scene in Bangladesh. What has been achieved by the NGOs in Bangladesh perhaps has not been achieved anywhere else in the world.
The path through the fields
On the outskirts of the village of Shibalong, there is a brick factory. Twenty years ago there was no brick factory or any other industry in this village. Located sixty kilometres west of Dhaka, there was no road to this village, only a footpath. Now Shibalong has opened its first Primary School. It is installing piped water. I have been a micro Credit customer for seventeen years says Rameja, the matriarch of an extended family. When I started, my house was broken. I slept on the streets. Now I have three cows, an acre of land, and solar panels on the roof and Taka 75,000 in fixed deposits.
Bangladesh was the original basket case, the demeaning term for countries that would always depend on aid. Bangladesh people are crammed on to a flood plain, swept by cyclone and without any minerals and other natural resources. It suffered famines in 1973 and 1974 and military coups in 1975, 1982 and 2001. When it split from Pakistan in 1971, many observers doubted that it could survive as an independent State. In some ways, those who doubted Bangladesh’s potential were right. Economic growth since the 1970s has been poor. The country’s politics has been unremittingly wretched. Yet over the past twenty years Bangladesh has made some of the biggest gains in the basic conditions of people’s lives ever seen anywhere. Between 1990 and 2000, life expectancy rose by ten years from 59 to 69. Bangladeshis now have a life span four years longer than Indians, despite the Indians being on an average twice as rich. Even more remarkably, the improvement of life expectancy has been as great among the poor as the rich.
Bangladesh also made huge gains in education. More than 90 per cent of girls enrolled in Primary School in 2005-slightly more than boys. This was twice the enrolment rate in 2000. Infant mortality has more than halved over the same period. Child mortality fell by 2/3rd and maternal mortality by 3/4th. In 1990, women could expect to live a year less than men. Now they can expect to live two years more!
The most dramatic period in human health in history is often taken to be that of late 19th century Japan. Bangladesh’s record on child and maternal mortality has been comparable in scale. These improvements are not a simple result of increases in people’s incomes. Bangladesh remains a poor country with GDP per head at dollars 1900 per head at purchasing power parity.
For the first decade of its independent history, Bangladesh’s economy grew by a paltry 2 per cent a year. Since 1990, its GDP has been rising at a more respectable 5 per cent a year in real terms. That has helped reduce the percentage of people below the poverty line from 49 per cent in 2000 to 32 per cent in2010. Still, Bangladesh’s growth has been slower than India’s which for most of the last twenty years grew at around 8 per cent a year. Nevertheless the gains in its development have been greater.
Four main factors explain this surprising success. First family planning has empowered women. If you leave side city States, Bangladesh is the most densely populated country. At independence its leaders decided that they had to retrain further population growth. China’s on child policy and India’s forced sterilisation both date roughly from the same time. Bangladesh’s new government lacked the power to be coercive. Instead birth control was made free and government workers and volunteers fanned out across the country to distribute pills and advice. In 1975, 8 per cent of women of child bearing age were using contraception; in 2010 the number was over 60 per cent.
In 1975, the total fertility rate, the average number of children a woman can expect to have during her life time was 6.3 per cent. In 1993, it was 3.4 per cent. After stalling it resumed its fall in 2000. After one of the steepest declines in history, the fertility rate is now just 2.3 per cent. When Pakistan and Bangladesh split in 1972 they each had a population of 65 million or so. Bangladesh is now around150 million. Pakistan is 180 million.
Because of this Bangladesh is about to reap a democratic dividend; the number of people entering adulthood will handsomely exceed the number of children being born, increasing the share of the total population that works.
In giving women better health and more autocracy family planning was one of a number of factors that improved their lot and by doing so, did much to reduce poverty. The spread of primary education was one of the others. The proportion of girls that get schooled has increased much more than the proportion of boys. And both the boom in the textile industry and the arrival of microcredit have over the past twenty years put money into women’s pockets from which it is more likely to be spent on health, education and better food.
Second, Bangladesh managed to restrain the fall in rural household incomes that usually increases extreme poverty in developing countries. Between 1971 and 2010, the rice harvest more than trebled though the area under cultivation increased by less than 10 per cent. This year the country; once supposedly doomed to dependence on food aid, could be a small exporter of rice! One sixth of the population remains undernourished which is a blight, but it is an improvement on twenty years ago when more than a third of the population was underweight or stunted.
Yield alone is not the whole story. The new crops of the Green Revolution allowed rice growers to move to two harvests a year. The rice of the Ganges delta used to be monsoon or aman; it was planted before the annual rains and harvested after. Now boro rice planted and harvested in winter is the main crop. For people just above the poverty line the sort of event most likely to plunge them into extreme poverty is a sudden external shock such as an illness or harvest failure. By expanding the winter crop, boro rice reduces the risk of a harvest failing in a way that that shocks a household into abject poverty. Between 2001 and 2012, Bangladesh went through three global food price spikes and two cyclones. Almost everyone expected a spike in poverty to follow. It did not happen so. The villages have also found resources from beyond agriculture and indeed beyond Bangladesh. Around six million Bangladeshis work abroad, mostly in the Middle East and they remit a large share of the national income more than any other country gets from migrants. In the year ending 2012, they sent back thirteen billion dollars, about 14 per cent of annual income, more than all the governments social protection programmes put together. The majority of migrant workers send their remittances back to family members in their village they came from.
The amounts that go on education 2.2 per cent of GDP and health 3.5 per cent in Bangladesh are below the average for low income countries. And even that spending may well have been wasted but for one further influence, the extraordinary role played by NGOs in the country. Without the State schools, clinics and cash transfer schemes Ms Rehana Sobhan, head of the Centre for Policy dialogue, a think tank, says, that other intervention would not work. It is the things which NGOs do that make Bangladesh’s way of fighting poverty unique. BRAC (Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee) invented the idea of tiny loans to the destitute. Then another NGO, the Grameen Bank made them work by targeting them on women and holding weekly meetings of borrowers, who could identify and support any one who was falling behind on repayments. Their growth since has been explosive. Grameen has 8.4 million borrowers and outstanding loans of 725 million Takas. The poor account for roughly a fifth of the total loan portfolio.
Since their establishment, micro credits have spread around the world. Their impact in the land of their birth has been mostly positive. Dacca University’s research on this showed that groups who regularly took credits of microfinance showed a poverty reduction of 10 per cent, while those who did not take such loans showed a poverty reduction of only five per cent.
The Magic Ingredient
The real magic of Bangladesh was BRAC and NGOs more generally. The BRAC began by distributing emergency aid in a corner of eastern Bangladesh after 1971. It is now the largest NGO in the world by its number of employees and the number of people it has helped. Three quarters of Bangladeshis have benefited one way or another.
Unlike Grameen Bank which is mainly microfinance and savings operations, the BRAC does practically everything. In the 1980s, it sent out volunteers to every household in the country, showing mothers how to mix salt, sugar and water in the right proportion, to rehydrate a child suffering from diarrhoea. This probably did more to lower child mortality in the country than anything else. The BRAC and the government ran a huge programme to innoculate every Bangladeshi against TB. The BRAC Primary schools are a safety net for children who drop out of State schools. The BRAC even has the world’s largest legal aid programme. There are more BRAC centres for legal aid than there are Police Stations in Bangladesh.
The scale is a response to one of the biggest challenges to development that solving one problem leads to another. This happens in economic development as well as the social kind. In the 1950s South Korea’s Samsung had a big woolen mill. It found that to expand, it had to make its own textile machinery. Then to export, it built its own ships. Samsung now has around eighty companies.
The BRAC is a sort of South Korea conglomerate for social development. It began with micro credit, but found its poor clients could not sell the milk and eggs produced by the animals they had bought. So BRAC got into food processing. When it found that the most destitute were too poor for micro loans, it set up a programme which gave them animals. Now it runs dairies, a packaging business, a hybrid seed producer, textile plants, and its own shops, as well as schools for dropouts, clinics and sanitation plants.
The innovative NGO now has one lakh volunteers with mobile phones. When a volunteer finds a woman is pregnant, she texts the mother to be, with advice of prenatal and later post natal care. This is helping BRAC build up a data base of maternal and child health partners in remote villages.
The BRAC goes out of its way to involve everyone. When it set up a programme for the ultra poor in Shibalong, the whole village gathered to decide who should be eligible.
A Balance Sheet
Bangladesh still has formidable problems. Its nutritional standards are low. But Bangladesh’s record in balance is a good one. It shows that the benefits of making women central to development are huge.
Bangladesh is still poor and crowded. With the lowest labour costs in the world, textile workers make about 35 dollars a month. It should be growing faster than China, not more slowly than India. It is badly governed; stifled by red tape and faces severe environmental problems. But in term of its grass roots development, it has lessons for the world.
Despite the opposition of the Islamists and particularly the lobby of the obscurantist rural mullahs in trying to sabotage the work of the NGOs and particularly the work of BRAC, the NGOs have persevered and stood up to the threatening rants of the Islamists and won the day. They have changed the face of rural Bangladesh.
It is in this connection that the coming elections in Bangladesh are of such crucial importance.
Bangladesh suffered a violent birth in the last days of 1971. East Pakistan was engulfed by torture, rapes, mass killings and genocide. The main perpetrators were Pakistani troops. The Pakistan Army had the support of many East Pakistani fundamentalist groups, including the Jammat-e-Islami. Estimates of the death toll vary from two to three million.
You have seen how in 1991-92, the attempts of the Freedom Fighters League to hold a trial of the accused who collaborated with the Pakistan Army was sabotaged by the Islamists, led by the Jammat-e-Islami, when the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, in 1992. The Freedom Fighters League persevered with this aim and when the Awami League came to power in 2010, they constituted a special Tribunal to try the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and other accused who collaborated with the Pakistan Army in killing Bengali intellectuals and others who opposed the Pakistan Army. The main perpetrators, you have seen, managed to get repatriated to Pakistan. However there are the East Pakistani collaborators like the Jammat-e-Islami leader Ghulam Azzam, and their deputies like Abdul Khader Mullah, who earned the epithet, the butcher of Mirpur and others. Ten of these have been arrested and a Special Tribunal was established in 2010 to try these war criminals. The trial has been in progress for the last two years. Unfortunately the presiding judge, Nizam ul Haq has resigned, following publication in Bangladesh of private e-mails, which showed recordings of the Judge speaking on telephone referring to the case of the Tribunal against the collaborators, with a lawyer in Brussels. It was perfectly correct of the judge to consult a jurist to discuss hypothetically about a case that he is trying. However since this is a very sensitive case and his conversation has become public, the judge has resigned. A new judge has been appointed by the government. Very obviously the judge who has stepped down was being pressurised by the political leaders to finalise the case quickly. This is because the present government’s term will expire by the end of 2013. If in the next election the Awami League loses and the Bangladesh National Party of Khaleda Zia wins, the Jammat-e-Islami will be her coalition partner and naturally the trial would be dropped forthwith.
A return of the BNP and the JEI alliance will mean the closure of the trial against the collaborators with the Pakistan Army who had committed genocide during the Bangladesh war of independence. It would mean a return of the Islamists lobbyists to power.
By EN Rammohan
(The author was Director General of BSF)